The Right — and Wrong — Lessons of Trump’s Yemen Raid
Americans have to allow its elite men and women to be aggressive, to take risks, and to, on occasion, fall short.
The United States lost a Navy SEAL this past week in a raid in Yemen that went wrong. In addition to the loss of the SEAL and a $75 million aircraft, it also appears that several innocent civilian lives were lost—never a good thing, and even worse when one of those innocent civilians appears to have been an 8-year-old girl.
Unnamed military officials told Reuters that “Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support, or adequate backup preparations.”
I was born a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, but never in my own memory has the political opposition to the sitting president been this intense. No president in my lifetime has become so unpopular, so fast. Yes, there was a lot of domestic opposition to President Bush, which culminated in the 2006 midterms, and yes, Republicans in the Obama years used a wave of Tea Party resentment to obstruct the president’s agenda, but this really and truly is something different. I was catching up with a friend in Congress, a Democrat, earlier this week, and he described the anger of his base as something he had never seen before.
So take a deep breath, because I’m about to tell many of you something you do not want to hear: Blaming Trump for what happened is both inappropriate and counterproductive. There are some good reasons to disapprove of this president: He is a man of demonstrated low character whose first few weeks in office have weakened both the international alliances and American values that have preserved our preeminent place in the world for over a century. Keep your powder dry for those things—but not this.
This raid, according to The New York Times, was approved by and recommended to the president by his secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For the recommendation to have gone forward to the president, the senior leadership of the Department of Defense would have signed off on this operation. And for that to have happened, special operations and regional U.S. commanders would have had to have blessed the planning that went into the operation itself.
The left cannot on the one hand claim Donald Trump is ignorant of military and security affairs, and then on the other hand expect him to second-guess the professional recommendations of his uniformed and civilian military leadership.
Some Obama-era counterterrorism and NSC officials are pointing to what happened as evidence that the very deliberate interagency process the Obama administration used to approve these operations has been justified.
I am inclined to disagree. My experience as a senior Department of Defense official in the last two years of the Obama administration leads me to the conclusion that the way we did things—with the military required to provide a “CONOPS,” or concept of operations, to be picked over by deputy cabinet secretaries and usually the secretaries themselves prior to being forwarded to the president for approval—was slow and ponderous in a way that created real opportunity costs and denied subordinate commanders the flexibility to exploit opportunities they saw on the battlefield. Yes, it eliminated a lot of physical and political risk, but in doing so it negated one of the primary advantages the U.S. military enjoys, which is a highly trained and capable officer corps in the field that can exercise independent judgment.
At one point toward the end of the Obama administration, cabinet secretaries—cabinet secretaries!—were literally debating whether or not it made sense to move three helicopters within Iraq and Syria. That decision should have been left to the very capable, very experienced commander on the ground, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Steve Townsend.
But this is a bi-partisan problem. To any Republicans feeling smug having just read those last two paragraphs, I have one word for you: Benghazi.
The way in which Republicans turned Benghazi into a cudgel they then used to beat Hillary Clinton had a chilling effect on anyone seeking to take any risk and personal initiative. The truth about Benghazi was that America’s very capable and intrepid ambassador on the ground, Chris Stephens, made an error in judgment for which he paid with his life. No one wanted to say that because no one wanted to be seen blaming the dead, but Stephens, in his capacity as the senior U.S. official on the ground, overruled his security officer and took risks that led to his death and the death of one other. And—and this will be difficult for some to read—that’s okay. That’s sometimes the price of doing business.
That did not stop, however, Republicans from cynically holding the secretary of state responsible in a—successful, it must be said—effort to weaken her presidential candidacy. Republicans spent millions of dollars on a baldly partisan investigation, one byproduct of which was to create a foreign-service officer corps that now feels it has to conduct its business behind concrete T-walls and cannot actually venture out into the peoples and societies that diplomats are supposed to build ties with.
America cannot punish its elected officials for allowing its military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence services to take risks necessary to pursue its interests. It’s true the president is ultimately responsible for everything his or her administration does and fails to do, but it’s not helpful for the default reaction when something goes wrong to be immediately elevating the blame to the office of the president.
I know and in many cases was trained by many of the men and women who made the decision to carry out the raid in Yemen. I spent a short period of my life leading U.S. Army Rangers and thus have some experience planning and executing time sensitive special operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan—often for the men and women who still command in our military. (Steve Townsend, who I mentioned earlier and who very likely did not play a role in the Yemen raid, was my very first commander in the Army.) As a result of that experience, though, I know how good the men and women are who work at the tactical and operational levels of our military, our foreign service, and our intelligence services.
Americans have to allow those men and women to be aggressive, to take risks, and to, on occasion, fall short. And we cannot immediately blame the president if and when they do.
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